I know, I know. I'm late to my own party.
I was supposed to write my first blog post back in September when our rebooted website was launched...instead, I chose every other reasonable and unreasonable means for passing the time over the last three months instead of writing this post (that's a fancy way to say I procrastinated). Alas, here I am on January 7th pecking away at my tiny iPhone keyboard, parked on the leg press machine at a YMCA and violating rule number one of every gym etiquette poster that ever was. Oops.
I'm not your typical procrastinator. Truth be told, I've been more guilty of overdoing than under-doing in my long history of mess-ups. Procrastinating, defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as putting off something out of habitual carelessness or laziness, just doesn't agree with my wiring...so why did I do it? Like many of the women I work with, I suspect my not-doing-what-needs-to-be-done has much more to do with my desire for perfection than it does with laziness. Unfortunately, preoccupation with perfection can have serious consequences, beyond putting off a simple blog post. In fact, psychologists have found perfectionism and an intolerance for personal mistakes to be closely associated with depression, anxiety, and disordered eating (Blatt, 1995; Donahue, Reilly, Anderson, Scharmer, & Anderson, 2018). When left unchecked, perfectionism can grow from an innocent personality trait to a joy-smothering, debilitating refusal to accept any standard short of ideal. It's a pit of quicksand: an attitude that seems virtuous and trustworthy, but without exception, it will sink you.
A Lose-Lose Scenario
Ultimately rooted in a fear of failure, perfectionism present us with a grim ultimatum. We can...
A) Obsessively work to meet an impossible set of standards (think strict dieting rules; categorizing food as "good" and "bad;" exercising out of guilt or obligation; constant mirror checking; and assigning behaviors as punishment when we aren't perfect)
B) Fall into the pit of paralyzing inaction (adopting the "screw it" mentality; equating one "mistake," one cookie, one skipped workout, or any variation from your plan with complete failure; and being so afraid of trying in vain that we don't try at all)
If those are our only prospects in the pursuit of perfectionism, we'll likely get stuck on the hamster wheel cycling between option A and B and never actually make headway in making peace with our bodies and food. We'll treat perfection as if it's a destination to arrive at where our problems melt away, but in truth, it's a state of being that humanity is fundamentally powerless to attain. Perfectionism will wreak havoc in us when we believe the lies that achieving perfect is possible and it will give us something we don't have.
If I've learned anything about perfectionism in my time as a wellness counselor and recovering perfectionist, it's this: perfect ______ doesn't exist. Fill in the blank with whatever you obsess over--the perfect body, the perfect weight, the perfect pant size, the perfect diet, the perfect social life, the perfect career, the perfect income, the perfect look. With enough of us giving our best efforts to be perfect, someone would have achieved it by now if it were possible! It's not achievable because it's a moving target, a standard constantly revised by our own internal critics whenever we get close to it. I can't be the only one who has met a weight loss goal, career goal etc and found myself disappointed and wanting, despite meeting my excessive expectations. Like all illusions, perfection will slip through our fingers each time we grab hold of it. Furthermore, perfect often promises us what we so desperately seek--to be loved, beautiful, credible, respected, successful, competent, and valuable. It promises to make us enough, to give us freedom from self-loathing, and to provide rest from constant criticism and self-doubt. Because it cannot rightfully tell us who we are, perfectionism over-promises and under-delivers every. single. time.
Freedom from "Perfect"
The good news is we have a God who always delivers on His promises, and His Word is chock full of truth on how to approach perfectionism. It turns out perfectionism is not only psychologically unhelpful in any kind of goal or behavior change pursuit, it's also unbiblical. In my most debilitating seasons of perfection-seeking, especially when I was struggling with disordered eating, I wish I had better understood the two truths below.
Perfection has been won for us
Refer back to Option A of perfection's ultimatum (a few paragraphs up). Sounds exhausting, huh? Humans have been working to do good and be good by meeting high and lofty standards for centuries. Even under God's law, a straightforward no-nonsense map to flawlessness, no one could meet God's standard for perfection. Even those men and women who faithfully walked with God could not be made perfect by their own actions (Hebrews 10:1). Instead of leaving us to fend for our imperfect selves, God sent his son Jesus to Earth to win freedom from the law for us (Romans 8:3). A New Testament author writes in Hebrews 12, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith." The key words here are "Jesus...the perfecter." He came to us, became like us, and fulfilled the entire law on our behalf so that we don't have to bear the burden of perfectionism and winning His approval. Christ alone is responsible for our right-standing before God, and no amount of effort on our part can change that. In Him, we have been gifted nonrefundable perfection.
Redemption--not perfection--is our story
Despite our gnawing desire to be perfect, our narrative as God's children* has always been about redemption, grace, and freedom from performance. Sending Jesus was His "Plan A." Because redemption is our story, we are not only released from the yolk from perfectionism, but we are free to be in process. Paul writes in Phillipians 1, "For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus." Until Heaven comes to Earth, the Holy Spirit will be working in each of us to make us more like Jesus. In the waiting, we are God's unfinished masterpiece, an imperfect sliver of the grand picture He's painting (Ephesians 2:10, 1 Corinthians 13:10-12).
Practical Shifts for Today
Hebrews 12:1 encourages us to throw off everything that hinders and entangles us as we run the race of life so we can keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. I don't know about you, but I sooooo want that! I want to rid myself of dysfunction and mental messiness and stop living as a slave to my own criticism. Can we all agree on that? Here's the tough part: actually getting out from under those perfectionist thought patterns and behaviors. In Finding Full's traditional fashion, let's look at some simple shifts of the mind, body and spirit that we can start now to help us let go of destructive perfectionism.
Mind Shift - Invite imperfection in like an old friend
As easy as it is to hate making mistakes, they aren't going anywhere. We can make peace with imperfection by expecting it, planning for it, and inviting its presence. For example, when I was trying to lose for my wedding, I used to plan to eat dessert most days. It seems counterintuitive, but it diffused the temptation to go overboard on sweets because I gave myself permission to have some. When my expectations for myself were better matched with reality (and my inevitable imperfections), I felt more capable of reaching my goals and I interpreted mistakes as "just a part of the plan."
Body/Behavioral Shift - Stop punishing yourself for being human
This one is simple to grasp, but hard to do. For those struggling with shame and self-loathing after eating "badly," compensatory behaviors, like compulsive exercise, skipping meals, food restriction, and body shaming, are tempting responses to those difficult feelings. First, reach out for help if you find yourself stuck in the cycle of making health "mistakes" and then undoing them with punishing behaviors. While we may not be able to keep ourselves from wanting to overexercise, skip a meal, or eat very little in those moments, we can choose to acknowledge them instead of acting on them. This is hard to do when you're isolated; talk to a friend or wellness counselor if you need support and accountability in breaking this destructive pattern.
Spirit Shift - Look up
When we are naval-gazing and constantly evaluating how we measure up, our eyes are not fixed on Christ. Let's turn our eyes from the self's crippling imperfections to Christ, our perfecter and champion of our cause. This might just mean a moment-by-moment return to that truth. It might mean a whispered prayer each morning, saying “Help me to trust that You are doing a good work in me and will finish what You started. Help me to experience the grace You’ve given me to be in process.” This will look different for each person, but the point is to take a cue from Lauren Daigle and “look up, child.” :)
*If you have questions about what it means to be a child of God or want to know more about God's story of redemption for you and me, I would love to talk with you! Email me directly and we can chat.
Blatt, S. J. (1995). The destructiveness of perfectionism: Implications for the treatment of depression. [Abstract]. American Psychologist,50(12), 1003-1020. doi:10.1037//0003-066x.50.12.1003
Bloom, J. (2017, June 9). Lay Aside the Weight of Perfection. Retrieved from https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/lay-aside-the-weight-of-perfection
Donahue, J. M., Reilly, E. E., Anderson, L. M., Scharmer, C., & Anderson, D. A. (2018). Evaluating Associations Between Perfectionism, Emotion Regulation, and Eating Disorder Symptoms in a Mixed-Gender Sample [Abstract]. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease,206(11), 900-904. doi:10.1097/nmd.0000000000000895